Virginia Beach urban farmer maximizes ‘Nottalotta’ space to provide fresh veggies

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Nottalotta Acres Urban Farm
Nottalotta Acres, an urban farm just a few miles away from Pembroke Mall, celebrated its one-year anniversary this month. (Mariah Pohl)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Tucked away behind trees and houses, just far enough from the noise on Independence Boulevard, is one of Virginia Beach’s only urban farms.

Nottalotta Acres Urban Farm is approximately three acres of land dedicated to growing produce, cultivating flowers, and raising chickens.

The hidden gem hasn’t been around for long. Owner Amanda Gerber celebrated the farm’s one-year anniversary this month.

(Mariah Pohl)
Rows of broccoli continue to grow throughout the winter months at the farm. (Mariah Pohl)

Gerber doesn’t have a traditional background in farming. Growing up, her mother always tended a garden on their 300-plus acres in Owensboro, Ky., but when she was 12 her family moved to Florida to live in a sailboat on the ocean.

At 18, Gerber moved up to Virginia Beach with her husband, but her passion for produce didn’t come to fruition for more than a decade.

“I’ve always wanted to be a farmer, but my husband is Navy so we were never sure if he would be here permanently. After living  13 years, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it,'” she said. “It was a dream I had that I didn’t think could happen in the city, but I made it work.”

Since the farm opened for business last February using a small plot of land owned by a family friend, Gerber has expanded the farm to two additional plots owned by neighbors.

Getting started was no easy task, Gerber said.

Because much of the land was covered in a thick layer of clay, which hindered plants from taking root, Gerber and her farming partner Art Amorese had to bring in loads of compost and horse manure to make the area more fertile.

The work hasn’t stopped there. According to Gerber, tending the farm is a full-time job.

Gerber inspects a freshly-cut head of broccoli. (Mariah Pohl)
Gerber inspects a freshly-cut head of broccoli. (Mariah Pohl)

“I work on the farm seven days a week, even through the winter,” she said. “Because of the amount of time and work that goes in to growing each plant, I treat them like my babies. We’re a small farm, so losing just one plant is a very big devastation for me.”

Gerber said she cried when Hurricane Matthew flooded her garden late last year.

Nottalotta Acres is not a USDA certified organic farm, but everything about Gerber’s farming process is natural.

Rather than use pesticides on her plants to prevent pests, Gerber buys hundreds of praying mantis eggs and ladybugs, which eat many of the bugs that plague gardens.

If that doesn’t do the trick, it’s not uncommon to find Gerber hand-picking bugs off her plants.

Gerber also spent hours last summer hand-pollinating each plant, due to a shortage of bees in the region.

“Unlike large-scale farming, I don’t have the luxury of using machinery to do work for me,” she said. “Everything from digging rows to planting seeds is done by hand.”

Gerber says her youngest daughter enjoys fetching eggs and taking care of the chickens. (Mariah Pohl)
Gerber says her youngest daughter enjoys fetching eggs and taking care of the chickens. (Mariah Pohl)

Another striking difference between commercial farms and urban farms is the amount of land available for planting. To get the most out of her small amount of space, Gerber has to look upwards, not outwards.

“Our melons and squashes vine up fencing,” Gerber explained. “This method allows us to plant seeds closer together, which lets us grow a lot more.”

In addition to vine vegetables, this year Gerber plans to grow tomatoes, three types of green beans, five varieties of potatoes, peppers, carrots, beets, kale and collards, broccoli, and lettuce.

She’s also hoping to gather apples, pears, plums, and nectarines from the farm’s many fruit trees.

Gerber and Amorese do must of the garden’s upkeep, but the two have a few helpers throughout the year.

Gerber’s daughters, Alexis, 11, and Tegan, 6, enjoy contributing to the farm — and eating the produce.

“It’s not the rabbits I have a problem with,” she said. “My kids want to eat it all.

“My eldest loves helping me with the market. She’ll take orders for customers, weigh their stuff, and take it to the car for them,” she continued. “She’s not very good at math, but working with money and weights has helped her improve at school.”

Gerber’s youngest has shown a disposition for planting flowers and caring for animals on the farm, Gerber said.

Gerber is building a transportable greenhouse for use during the upcoming produce season. (Mariah Pohl)
Gerber is building a transportable greenhouse for use during the upcoming produce season. (Mariah Pohl)

“As challenging as it has been for me to work on the farm seven days a week, they are learning a lot from it,” she said. “It teaches my kids about hard work ethic and being responsible.”

The farm has also had a tangible impact on the surrounding community, which has welcomed Nottalotta Acres with open arms, Gerber said.

“If you buy from someone like me, I’m only coming from around the corner. We’re right in the middle of the community that we serve.”

The familiarity of local farming is a big part of why Gerber plans to continue providing produce at places like King’s Grant Farmers Market and possibly the Farmers’ Fare Farmers Market at East Beach. She’s also actively working to find a spot between Pembroke Mall and Independence Boulevard where she can sell directly to surrounding neighborhoods.

“I love having customers come to me after eating my produce and telling me it was the best they’ve ever eaten, or trying something new and asking to buy more of it,” she said. “Farming is hard work, but it’s work I love to do.”

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com